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KISSED: four fundamentals for effective brand advertising

alireza-helmi-H51RTgWzYAs-unsplash Credit: Alireza Helmi on Unsplash
The whole point of marketing is to influence purchase decisions, so marketers need to understand how people make choices and work with people's inclinations not against them. Based on academic research and my experience of working on thousands of brand campaigns, I have identified four fundamentals of effective brand advertising.

Our decisions helped us survive
Having read many academic papers detailing research into the biases of human decision making, it seems obvious to me that a lot of new research is focused on errors of judgment and, in doing so, misses the big picture. Homo Sapiens has survived for 300,000 years and in the process outcompeted the various other hominids who preceded them. That is a phenomenal track record, suggesting that our decision-making capabilities work well at scale and over time. Individually we may screw up. Collectively we may suffer from systematic biases. But despite those facts, humanity has managed to survive to see in another New Year.

What helped us survive guides our purchase decisions
Human motivations and decision making have changed very little over time, despite what the pundits might like to claim. We cannot escape relying on the age-old mechanisms that helped us survive, even when we apply them to the simple act of buying a can of soup. Our brains have an amazing ability to recognize things and intuitively classify them as good or bad, even when we encountered them years before. This helped our hunter gatherer ancestors find food that was safe to eat (if it did not make me sick last time, it is probably OK). Today, a recognized brand is a safer bet than an unfamiliar one.

Yes, our environment has changed (literally), and technology has enabled our behaviors like never before, but those behaviors have not really changed. Our needs, wants, and aspirations, remain remarkably consistent. People still want to boast, complain, make lewd comments, they just do so on social media rather than scribbling graffiti on the walls of ancient Pompeii. What we buy may have changed since Roman times, why we buy has not.

All the above means that if marketers focus on the fundamentals of how their potential customers will respond to advertising, their probability of success will increase dramatically.

The four fundamentals of brand advertising effectiveness
In the rest of this post, I am going highlight the fundamentals of effective brand advertising. In doing so, I generalize from the academic evidence and combine that learning with my observations derived from 40 years of consumer insight research. I also focus on brand advertising rather than performance marketing, because when it comes to driving sales growth, brand advertising is today's big untapped opportunity.

To make things more memorable, I have created a new acronym: KISSED. And no, the second S does not stand for stupid.

This is the command that precedes the four key components of the framework.

SWIFT to earn attention
For millennia humanity's ability to think has helped us get through life as easily, safely, and enjoyably as possible. To do so, our thinking needs to be fast. When a car swerves in front of you, you need to react appropriately. Indecision is not going to help. More importantly, you must quickly anticipate what is going to happen next to avoid an accident. Whatever the context, we need to recognize what is going on, assess its meaning, and respond quickly.

Research demonstrates that people can judge trustworthiness from faces in less than 50 milliseconds (that is less than 0.05 of a second, 1/20th of a second, or blink of the eye fast). The ability to judge whether someone is trustworthy or not is obviously relevant to survival and social interaction, so faster is better. (That said whether our assessment of trustworthiness is accurate or not is unproven, but what we can say is that an unconstrained assessment rarely deviates from the initial one.)

Takeaway: quickly create positive anticipation
The vast majority of people have no interest in your advertising at the time they are exposed to it. However, if people anticipate that the content might be entertaining, interesting, or immediately relevant to their needs, then they will attend to it, but only for as long as they continue to anticipate it is worthwhile doing so.

This means you must design your marketing activities to be appreciated quickly and then seek to hold people's attention long enough to convey your brand impression. Stories tend to perform better than sales pitches in part because people expect that there will be a pay off or conclusion to a story that might be of interest. Why do so many people abandon online videos within a few seconds? First, because the ad was not what they wanted to see. Second, because the content did not trigger a positive intuitive response that suggested the video was worth watching. The answer is not shorter ads, it is better ads.

SIMPLE to be remembered
Of course, when it comes to dynamic media like video, you can make your content too fast. Which is why it is also important to strike the right balance between content that quickly engages attention and then gets its point across. When it comes to brand advertising, simpler is better.

There are a couple of key reasons why it is better to strive for simplicity.

First, our brains only have so much working memory and cannot handle more than one concept at a time. For a lovely demonstration of how easily we lose track of details, have a look at this video of Dom Twose presenting Tony Slydini's coin trick based on the Attentional Blink. Try to present ideas too quickly and people will miss important details and lose the plot. Instead, dynamic ads need to work at a pace that allows people to make sense of what is going on. And here is a hint: many of your intended audience do not work in advertising and are older than you. You get it, but will they?

Second, our brains can store a huge amount of information, but there a lot of evidence that we store concepts more easily than facts. Storing the simplest memory of an experience helps in rapid assessment of what to do when faced with a new situation. People might recognize an ad when shown it again but are unlikely to be able to recall much unaided, which is what they must do if brand advertising is to influence future purchasing. Equally, there is a lot of evidence from advertising research that including multiple messages in any one ad dilutes recall of each message.

Takeaway: deliver an impression not specific messages
Our cognitive capacity is limited, both in its ability to attend to what is going on at a point in time and to recall what was experienced. Do not expect people to remember or be motivated by complex messaging, they certainly will not remember it. Craft your content to ensure that the desired impression is communicated as clearly and simply as possible. Focus each piece of content on one impression, multiple ideas will just compete for attention and memory.

Focused on setting EXPECTATIONS
People make decisions faster and more intuitively when they have deep experience of the situation. The emotional 'tags' left by prior experience help guide our response, as we seek to avoid negative feelings and amplify positive ones. And that applies to choosing brands as well as making other decisions.

Obviously, whether someone has experienced your brand directly or not is going to make a huge difference to how they respond to your brand. Users know what to expect, non-users do not. What brand advertising does is to provide the audience with an action script to be used when a specific situation arises. If this is the situation, then this is the appropriate brand to choose, because it will help you feel like this. Our lazy brains then adopt the script as their own, making it that much easier to make a purchase decision that favors the advertised brand.

The most effective advertising works by creating scenarios to which people aspire or to which they can relate. With attention and repetition, people implicitly learn how the brand might fit into their lives and how it might make them feel as a result. To put this in marketing speak, successful advertising conveys both functional and emotional benefits. And the good news is that humans have evolved to be very good at understanding emotions and mirroring them.

Takeaway: showcase your brand in action
Effective brand advertising primes people with ideas of what to expect from a brand but to do so, it must communicate three things.

  1. What the brand looks like.
  2. How it fits with people's needs, wants, and desires.
  3. How people feel because of using the brand.

Familiar brands have an easier task than new ones, simply because the basics of what the brand has to offer are well-known. This may create greater leeway for creativity, but it does not mean the three communication needs can be ignored. And while people can generalize, it helps if you can provide multiple versions of the basic script to reinforce their ability to recognize relevant situations for which the brand is the obvious solution. Give people as many cues to work with as possible to help them recognize the situation and brand.

Memorable to allow for DELAY
First, there is a practical aspect to the idea of assuming a delay between exposure to marketing activity and response. You cannot control when someone responds to your marketing. They will be ready to buy when they are ready to buy. And effective brand advertising casts a broad net and aims to influence as many future purchasers as possible, which means the impressions delivered by your advertising must be easily accessed from memory when the time comes for people to buy.

Second, there is good reason to believe that advertising is more influential if the impression left by the advertising is dissociated from its source. People often say, "I am not persuaded by advertising." And it turns out that this statement can be true, provided the person in question perceives that the advertising is trying to influence them. A paper by Laran, Dalton, and Andrade published in the Journal of Consumer Research that finds brands and slogans produce differing effects. Brands produce behavior in line with pre-existing brand expectations, but slogans cause a reverse priming effect because they are perceived as persuasion tactics.

The guiding principle in marketing right now seems to be influence or intervene as close as possible to the moment of purchase. Not only is this practice highly inaccurate, but it may also actually mean your marketing is less effective than it could be because people tend to resist direct persuasion.

Takeaway: make the brand impression memorable
Brand advertising primes people to respond positively to your brand when the time comes for them to buy. Faced with a specific need, the brand is either recognized or recalled as the obvious solution and choosing it can easily be justified if there is any uncertainty caused by the presence of close alternatives or a higher price than expected. To this end, we remember things that,

Evoke an emotional response
The stronger the emotion, the more intense and long-lasting the memory. Advertising will never compete with life events like a wedding, the birth of a child, or even a good vacation, but it can evoke positive emotions that not only ensure attention but also encourage recall and predispose us to choose a brand.

Are recent
The more recently you experienced something, the easier it is to remember. And all the evidence from sales modeling show that effective advertising has a strong immediate effect that tails off over time. Without additional advertising, new buyers coming into the market are less likely to recall the advertising impression, unless it has already been firmly associated with the brand.

Are repeated
Repetition is important to keeping memories easily accessible. Not just repeated exposure to the same ad spread out over time, but repeated exposure to the same idea delivered in different executions. The more easily the brand is associated with a wide range of needs, wants, and desires, the more likely it is to be bought.

In conclusion
People are cognitive misers and often need to make decisions quickly under conditions of ambiguity. As a result, marketers should aim to get people to respond to their brand advertising as quickly and easily as possible. To do so, make sure your brand advertising earns attention SWIFTLY, communicates SIMPLY, creates positive EXPECTATIONS, and is memorable enough to bridge the DELAY between exposure and decision.

So, what is your response? What am I missing? 

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July 12, 2024